On Wednesday, Chesa Boudin (San Francisco), Larry Krasner (Philadelphia) and Rachael Rollins (Boston) joined together to announce the formation of local “Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commissions” in each city.
People in these communities have lacked recourse from police violence and prosecutor overreach, and people with power have abused it without consequence. This partnership aims to give voice to those who have been subject to racist and deeply harmful practices for years.
Shaun King explained that often we fight for meaningful reform in the criminal justice system and do not take into account how old it is (hundreds of years old), how complicated it is (there are huge amounts of laws, policies and agencies), and every year ten million people are arrested.
“The United States is the most incarcerated nation in the history of the world,” King said. “Because of that we continue to have egregious moments of police violence and racial injustice all over this country.”
He explained that we are fighting for deep change, “but only see piecemeal reforms.” He argued that “small reforms have hardly led to any measurable gains.”
He explained that the “justice system,” or what more people are calling the “legal system” or “criminal legal system,” was not designed to give Blacks, Latinos, Indigenous Peoples and other marginalized communities justice, saying “it wasn’t built to give those people justice. It was actually built to oppress those communities.”
King added, “We used to say that this system is broken. I understand why people look at it and think that.” He said, “Instead it’s more nefarious than that.”
He said, “This system is not broken. It’s functioning exactly the way those who designed and built it intended it to function.”
Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner noted that this is “a moment of injustice that’s being recognized in our society.” He said that the task before them is to not only address policing, but also prosecution.
In three different cities, there will be three different pilots. They will always be attentive to what is going on locally.
“All of us are trying to and willing to hold police and prosecutors accountable,” Krasner said.
“People desperately need a forum to have their voices heard and their harms redressed. Prosecutors have a critical role in helping communities find space to address past wrongs in new and unused ways, whether it is through exonerations or through alternative forms of restorative justice or truth and reconciliation,” he said.
He added, “As a civil rights lawyer, I watched how this community suffered from law enforcement and prosecutorial overreach, and I know that these harms went unaddressed for many if not most. We cannot go back to fix that, but we can give a voice to those who experienced injustice for years.”
Suffolk County (Boston) DA Rachael Rollins noted that two issues define Boston’s criminal legal system’s challenges—busing and the Charles Stewart case.
She noted that Stewart, a white man, murdered his pregnant wife and their unborn child. Stewart blamed a fictitious Black man and “hell was rained down on this community by the Boston Police Department.” They went after an innocent Black man, the police brutalized hundreds of Black men, and the community “has never received an apology and this is a stain on our city.
“Both illustrate exactly what we have to do with respect to confronting through the creation of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, that systemic racism is deeply rooted not just within the criminal legal system, but threaded through the very fabric of American history.”
She called Black people “the most culturally appropriated people on the planet.”
She added, “We are the only people that have to apologize or be blamed for our murder.”
And this, she explains, tears deeper into “the already justified distrust between communities of color and law enforcement.” She explained that, as a Black woman, a woman of color and also an elected prosecutor who was elected to reform the criminal legal system, “I cannot separate those things, nor would I ever want to.” She said, “I know with this commission I must first and foremost continue to listen to the community.”
San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin added, “We know that the system that we are charged with running in each of our cities is not working.” He argued whatever the design, “It is not working for our communities. It is not keeping us safer.”
He said the tear gas and arrests that have come out in cities across the country, are not going to allow us to move forward.
“They might bottle it up, but it is going to come back again stronger,” he said.
Boudin said, “We are at a crossroads in our country. We recognize the tremendous demand for change. Many people are at a loss for how to turn that righteous rage we see in the streets everyday into concrete policy reforms.”
In San Francisco most of our Black communities, he said, are under an occupation by the San Francisco Police Department through gang policies.
He added, “In San Francisco we are working to not only enact changes and create policies that hold police accountable going forward, but also to build trust with those who have been hurt by the lack of police accountability in the past. We are honored by the opportunity to be part of this initiative to heal the wounds created by police abuse, to empower impacted communities, and to seek real justice for all.”
One barrier to change in the police, they said, are police unions.
Chesa Boudin said, “What we see in the dialogue with police unions is an utter resistance to any kind of change.” He said, “You want to look at police reform, police unions are to police reform what the National Rifle Association is to gun control.
“They have resisted every step of the way,” he said. “They are not a partner for realistic police reform.”
Rachael Rollins said, “If Zappos, Ben & Jerry’s, and MacDonald’s can make statements about George Floyd’s murder and denounce racism and say that Black lives matter, but our police department and rank and file members are refusing to do so, this is why we get not guilty in our homicide trials.”
Larry Krasner said police unions “have an outsized level of political control” and “are usually run by retired members” and come from a different generation.
“The deadliest police culture in the developed world, which is also the most incarcerated nation in world history, has devoured individuals, families, and entire communities for generations in this country. Its victims have been disproportionately Black and what some call justice in the United States has been dispensed among racial lines,” said Lee Merritt, civil rights attorney and Co-Founder of the Grassroots Law Project.
He added, “The TJRC will give communities access to meaningful ways of healing, which have long been absent from this nation’s so-called criminal justice system. Creating new institutions to address historic atrocities and modern inequities embedded in the fabric of society is essential if we are ever going to turn the page on America’s bloody legacy.”
As DA Boudin explained, the justice and reconciliation commissions are entities set up to uncover past instances of racial and ethnic injustice that were frequently ignored or perpetuated by the government. They are modeled after the work done in post-Apartheid South Africa to develop a path forward after decades of racial violence.
The commissions will begin as pilot projects to create a process for district attorneys and their local communities to hear from victims of police and prosecutor misconduct, develop new pathways to justice, and re-examine what justice looks like for marginalized groups.
This critical project is at its early stages, and the district attorneys will begin dialogue with their communities—including persons impacted by police violence—and develop policies and structures to help communities heal from the generational trauma resulting from police violence and racial injustice.
Each commission will be responsive to the individualized needs of the community.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
To sign up for our new newsletter – Everyday Injustice – https://tinyurl.com/yyultcf9